When you receive a legal document, it can be difficult to understand what it means. This might be because of:
For a helpful tool to use when reading a legal document, see
Checklist: Reading legal documents.
Remember, you should never ignore a legal document that is sent to you. You should read it and keep in mind any deadlines to respond or take action.
When reading a legal document you should consider the following:
Sometimes the simplest way to work out what a legal document is saying is to read the heading.
If it is a letter, it may have a heading, before the bulk of the text, which explains:
If it is a court document, there may be a heading explaining what the document is, such as:
If it is legislation (laws made by parliament), the name of the law and the year it became law will usually be at the top as a heading, such as:
Each part, division and section of a law will also have headings to describe what they contain.
Many legal documents have a reference number that can help identify what the case is about and who is involved.
The type of legal document sent to you will usually give you information about what the writer is trying to tell you. For example, a:
Understanding what the document is trying to tell you can help you work out how to respond.
Any legal letter or court document you receive will also tell you something in particular. For example:
Legislation can provide information about a number of things, including:
Forms will usually provide spaces for you to fill in your details, but may also tell you:
A good way to work out what a document is saying, is to separate it into sections, or summarise it in point form. You could:
Lawyers sometimes use legal words, phrases and language that are not easy to understand. They may also use Latin words and phrases.
Some examples of legal words include:
Some examples of legal phrases include:
Some examples of Latin words and phrases used include:
These are just a small example of the many legal and Latin words and phrases that are often used. If you do not understand a word used in a legal document, you should use a dictionary (see below) or get
If you don't understand a word used in a legal document you should look it up in a dictionary. Some legal words might not appear in an ordinary dictionary, but there are legal dictionaries that give meanings for common legal words and terms. Most legal dictionaries will also include Latin words and commonly used phrases.
Representing Yourself has a dictionary for common words found on this website, including some legal and Latin words. For more information, see
You can also access dictionaries and legal dictionaries in your local library. Go to the
LIAC website for more information.
The following links provide examples of legal documents with explanations of how to read them: